Time to Elevate Market Vigilance

A key job of strategic marketers is to be on constant look out for changes in their consumers and their markets. But most of us don’t have this on the top of our priority lists of things to do. Most of us analyze our markets and develop our strategic plans for driving growth under the current circumstances, in the current environment. But this approach can lead to totally missing the boat. If a significant market change occurs while the plan is being executed, it’s very possible you’ll be screwed.

Strategic Planning gurus like Willie Pieterson advocate constant adaptation of the strategic plan. He proposes a continuous cycle of evaluation, planning and executing. But realistically, the process of strategic planning is such a significant and, sad to say, disruptive undertaking for many organizations, who has the stomach – or the resources – for doing it continuously?

I recently read an HBR article called “The Self-Tuning Enterprise.” Its point is that, much like the algorithms that drive Amazon’s recommendations, businesses need to adjust constantly to incoming information. Further, the authors say, these adjustments must take place not simply at the plan level, but all the way up to the vision-of-the-business level.

The authors use the Chinese company Alibaba as their example. As free commerce and internet usage grew in China over the past couple of decades, Alibaba evolved rapidly from a B2B website for small exporters of goods to the company that, according to its vision statement, is building the “future infrastructure of commerce.” Yes, the company’s ability to see changes happening, experiment and adapt is remarkable. But let’s be honest: the rate of change in this market has been extraordinary. Most of us are in evolving markets, not exploding ones.

This is what got me thinking: changes in consumer, competitor and market dynamics typically don’t smack us in the face. So remaining vigilant can seem like watching paint dry. Who wants that job? Yet our businesses do live in an adapt-or-die world.

So here’s a practical solution. Someone in marketing (not planning – tends to be too long term and not sufficiently action-oriented) needs to remain vigilant. I think the best candidate is the new product development/innovation team. A key part of their job is to identify coming developments in consumer needs and behaviors that could create demand for new offerings. My recommendations are the following:

  1. Expand the scope of this market scanning function to include changes with possible impact on the business, not just changes in consumer needs.
  2. Set the expectation that this work constitutes fifty percent of the team’s agenda.
  3. Set the expectation that all marketers allocate time in their calendars once a month to exploring and thinking about ways in which their consumers and markets may be changing, or how developments in other industries may spill over into their own.
  4. Create a quarterly forum attended by all marketers at which the market scanners present and interpret key findings.

This seems to me to be a practical approach to remaining vigilant in markets that aren’t evolving a mile a minute. Organizations clearly need to be watchful and they need to engage on what’s happening around them. This is my urging for marketers to make it a priority – i.e., devote the time every month – to staying vigilant to changes happening around them.

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